Handheld calculators were introduced in the 1970s. Here’s what a popular mid-70s model looked like (for those of you of a certain age, this will be nostalgic):
Handheld calculators were a big deal. Prior to calculators, doing math required pen and paper or the use of a mechanical device like an abacus, slide rule, or adding machine. Here’s an adding machine like the one I Ioved to play with at my grandparents’ house:
I was born in 1970, so my school years were mainly in the 70s and 80s. During that time there was concern that the rising popularity of handheld calculators would render my generation incompetent at math. Older generations learned math without calculators — to them, these new devices seemed like shortcuts that would make future generations lazy and ignorant. Schools struggled with how to adjust to the use of calculators by students. Should they ban them? Should they embrace them?
Of course, handheld calculators were just the beginning. In the 1980s, personal computers made their way into homes, and by the late 1980s, you could load powerful spreadsheets like Lotus 1-2-3 onto PCs.
What we know now is that calculators and spreadsheets are just tools — amazing ones that have supercharged productivity in fields where math is used and numerical data is analyzed. I work in wealth management, and I can’t conceive of what my job would be like if I was limited to an adding machine or slide rule. I use both my HP 17BII calculator (or the app) and Excel all day. Calculators and spreadsheets allow humans to focus on math concepts and use tools to eliminate the time sucking drudgery of doing math by hand. We’re the puppet masters, the calculators and spreadsheets are the puppets.
New advanced technology is disorienting.
When I first used ChatGPT late last year I was blown away. I liken it to how I felt I first used the internet in the Fall of 1995: amazed. But after my initial excitement I began to feel concerned. How will students learn to write if they can just use ChatGPT? Is use of AI-generated writing cheating? Will using it take something away of our humanity? And ChatGPT is a new born. What will it and other AI be like in a few decades? When I think about ChatGPT, I feel a combination of excitement and dread.
Like their issue with calculators decades ago, schools are struggling with how to deal with this game-changing technology. How will students learn to write if they can use ChatGPT? Should schools (try to) ban it? Should they embrace it?
I’ve been using ChatGPT a bit. For example, somewhat hidden away on this blog are lists of books I’ve read with short descriptions, some of which are ChatGPT generated. Here’s a link to my 2023 list — four (maybe five?) of the 12 descriptions were written by ChatGPT (can you tell which ones?). It’s a nice tool — I don’t need to spend the effort to summarize a book in a few sentences when ChatGPT can do a passable job. I’m starting to experiment with it more.
It makes me think: maybe ChatGPT is like calculators and spreadsheets? Maybe AI tools will increase our productivity and give us space to focus on concepts and creativity? Or maybe we’re on the verge of Skynet going live. Time will tell.